Home Page * Articles * Products & Services * Links

Shaping our Future with Conscious Parenting


By Dr. Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D.

All biological organisms, from bacteria to humans, share one biological behavior: the will to survive. This fundamental drive for survival, referred to as a "biological imperative," is built into every organism.

The repertoire of diverse behaviors an organism employs to "survive" may be conveniently subdivided into two functional categories: behaviors that support growth and behaviors that provide protection. Growth-related behaviors include activities associated with seeking nutrients and supportive environments for personal survival and the seeking of mates for species survival. Protection behaviors are those activities employed by organisms to avoid harm.

The selection of growth and protection behaviors is a dynamic process that is influenced by an organism's perception of its environment. Organisms, from single cells to humans, gravitate toward positive, "life-supporting" stimuli and in the process, engage in growth behaviors. In contrast, organisms are repelled by negative, "life-compromising" stimuli which provoke the selection of protection behaviors. The more relevant a stimulus is to the organism's survival, the more polarized (either positive or negative) the resulting response. In humans, the extremes of the two polarities might appropriately be described as love (positive) and fear (negative).

All activities are empowered using precious metabolic energy. Each organism is endowed with an energy "budget" to power its biological needs. It is important to note that energy spent (deducted from the budget) in support of protection is therefore not available for growth. In fact, the metabolic investment required to support protection responses comes at the cost of compromising growth. There is a point where organisms that live in too much fear die because they have no energy reserves available for growth.

In human development, the factor that determines the selection of either growth or protection programs by the fetus is based upon its perception of its environment. The environment perceived by the fetus is the maternal blood from which it receives nourishment and "information." Nourishment is derived from the metabolites transported in the mother's blood. "Information" is provided by signal molecules (such as: hormones, neuropeptides and cytokines and other immune-related "hormones") which also circulate within the maternal blood. This molecular information controls the mother's physiologic and behavioral responses to her perception of the environment. Since the father (typically) is so intimately entwined with the mother's world, her physiology actually represents the convergence of both her and her significant other's perception of life. While our emphasis is on the role of the maternal influence, the fetus is actually shaped by both parents.

The environmental "information" observed by the fetus was not primarily intended for the fetus. The maternal nervous system releases blood-borne information signals in response to her perception of the environment. The primary role of these signals is to regulate the selection of growth and protection behaviors in maternal organs, tissues and cells. If the mother's nervous system perceives an environment that is threatening to either her or her fetus' survival, it will release informational molecules that will engage a protective response and prepare her for flight or fight. When the body's valuable energy resources are directed toward promoting protection behaviors, growth behaviors must necessarily be shunted.

These maternal information signals cross the placenta and profoundly impact the genetics and behavior of the developing fetus. Initially, one might think that free passage of maternal signals through the placenta would represent a "defect" in Nature's mechanism. Far from being a design flaw, the transfer of these signals to the fetal system is Nature's way of providing the baby with an advantage in dealing with the world it will soon enter.

Thus, through the relaying of information to the developing offspring, the mother's perceptions directly impact the selection of gene programs that may enhance the survival of her offspring, and ultimately that of the species. Since the offspring will spend their lives in the same or essentially the same environment in which they were born, developmental "programming" of the neonate by the mother is of adaptive value in species survival. This is Nature's equivalent to a "head start" program. The old axiom, being forewarned is being forearmed, is appropriate to apply to this situation.

A fetus developing in a happy, harmonious, supportive environment will primarily engage growth programs and will be healthier and stronger for it. However, a pregnant woman in an abusive environment will continuously relay adrenal distress signals, which shunt resources from growth-related behaviors in both herself and in her fetus. The mother's investment in protection causes the fetus to divert its growth and engage in a "fight or flight" metabolism. The down side of the story is that even through a "misperception" of her environment, a mother can negatively impact the survival of her child. That is, if she "perceives" a hostile environment, even though in reality it is supportive, the fetus' growth will be compromised as well!

It has recently been shown that maternal influences may impact more than just the subsequent generation. An observation referred to as the "grandmother effect" reveals Dutch women who were on starvation diets during the famine of World War II, produced smaller than normal babies. Interestingly, this pattern of stunted growth continued into the next generation. There are now many examples of how maternal observations of environmental influences profoundly alter the growth, phenotype (physiological expression), sex ratios and even the sexual maturation period of their offspring, all in an effort to ensure the survival of their species.

Current research indicates that fetal brain development can be shunted by a mother's chronic protection posture. High stress in the maternal system leads to elevated adrenal hormones which depress the activity of the "executive" reasoning centers of both hers and her fetus' brain. It is now recognized that up to 52% of a child's IQ is apparently determined by environmental influences, especially during the critical prenatal period. Similarly, as the stress experienced by a nation increases, the intelligence of its offspring will inevitably decrease.

This new perspective on the role of nurture over nature, is of vital importance for it underscores the need for Conscious Parenting. Conscious Parenting emphasizes the fact that, from before conception, the environment and specifically, the parent's perception of the environment, profoundly influences the development, health and intelligence of the child and the life of the next generation. An important contribution to this new vision will be the turning away from the old Darwinian notion of the "survival of the fittest" and the adoption of a new credo, the "survival of the most loving!"